Deliberations and Resources on Radical Christianity

Tom Wright on Christian Hope

This is something of an early review on the book “Surprised by Hope” by Tom Wright (Or N.T. Wright to his more scholarly audience), who, for those of you unaware, is the Bishop of Durham in the Anglican Communion, and one of the more prominent New Testament theologians of our day.

I say this is an early review because I haven’t actually finished the book yet. However, Dr. Wright (If it is appropriate to refer to him as such, I have no way of knowing the proper form of address for a Bishop, and if he ever reads this review then I hope I shall be forgiven such ignorance) is a man who manages to generate such a vastly diverse – and yet strangely coherent – set of ideas on one issue that he has already managed to have me thinking a great deal on the subject of this work even after only reaching the halfway mark.

Surprised by Hope is an exploration of the truth regarding the afterlife in Christian thought… or, to put it more precisely, the lack of an afterlife. Wright seeks to lay out literally centuries of misunderstanding regarding the whole concept of what we refer to as “resurrection,” and in its place more fully explain the actual Biblical truth. The misunderstandings, he recounts in a very detailed way, regard how modern Christians often believe that when the Bible speaks of resurrection, they take it to mean our “Going to Heaven,” in that we envisage our earthly corpses being completely left behind to decay when we die followed by an immediate transition of our “spiritual selves” (often referred to as the “soul” or “spirit”) to the dimension of Heaven, God’s dwelling place. The book’s concern is to explicate Biblical truth on the matter and to show that this is in fact not what Jesus and the Apostles taught at all, but rather that when they encouraged us to pray “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as in Heaven,” they meant it quite literally. The resurrection of the dead, as it is laid out in the New Testament, is based in the thoroughly Jewish theology that God will one day transform (and is indeed transforming as we speak) the entire creation. Wright’s ultimate argument is that just as Jesus Christ underwent the transformation of a full bodily resurrection after He died and rose again, so too will we be raised and transformed in entirely the same manner. He draws a lot of inspiration from 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul discusses how God will one day transform our current physical bodies to be spiritual bodies when the Kingdom comes, and that because of what Christ has accomplished upon the cross, this is actually already happening in the current moment. The reality, then, as far as Jesus and the first Christians were concerned, wasn’t that we would leave this earthly plain at all, but rather that the earth would be made into a new creation along with ourselves.

I can imagine that at this point some Christians would argue “Does it really matter, though? Don’t we Christians have more important things to be worrying about than the precise nature of what God will or won’t do, or what does or doesn’t happen when we die? Surely it’s not important to guess what “heaven” might be like, since none of us knows?”

This is actually a major cornerstone of Wright’s overall purpose in writing this work. Not only is it his desire to correct the misconception of resurrection, but he argues that whether we cling to the old (non-Biblical) tradition of Heaven or whether we embrace the actual truth greatly impacts how we conduct ourselves spiritually in the here and now. For example, a Christian stuck in the idea that we are “going to Heaven” after we die might be inclined, however subconsciously, to feel complacent about the injustices of the world and its suffering because they believe that ultimately this world doesn’t matter and will one day be destroyed once God’s judgement comes. Their priority might be the business of “saving souls,” to gather as many believers and disciples as is possible so that they can be prepared to “go home” once Jesus comes again. To illustrate this point even further, Wright speaks of how American fundamentalists have often approached him to argue that environmentalism and matters of ecological concern are a waste of time, because this world is utterly fallen and God is far more concerned with gaining believers in Christ in time for the end. He goes on to comment, with a subtle undertone of sadness complimenting his outrage, that this line of thinking is not only dangerous but entirely blasphemous.

A Christian who holds fast to the Biblical truth, he argues, understands what the scriptures say in that the resurrection from the dead means not only transformation for ourselves, but also the entire cosmos. God has begun a mysterious work in the universe because of what Jesus has accomplished upon that cross, and when we are awakened to that truth, we become of a heart and mind where we ourselves will work for that transformation. The Christian who understands that God is not preparing to unleash His destructive wrath on a hopeless world, but rather change the whole cosmos into the one it was always meant to be, has their attitude more conformed to working out God’s love, peace, and justice in the here and now, since they are preparing for the time when that justice will come in fullness. Wright wishes the church, then, to be of a heart and mind where we embody such transformation in the present time, knowing that our work does not happen in vain but will eventually be used by God when the Kingdom comes.

All this, of course, is but a mere summary, and I can’t do appropriate justice to this thorough examination in a single blog post. There are many elements which stick out in my mind and blow me away, though. For example, in one chapter Wright discusses the so-called “rapture” event described in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, wherein Paul talks about Jesus’ second coming and how he apparently describes all existing believers being “caught up” to meet Him in the air. This one passage has become the subject of much discourse within more conservative churches obsessed with endtimes studies, and has been featured quite prominently in Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ fictional Left Behind series (As a testimony to the author’s subtle yet smile-raising humour, he points out how this book series has not only been a bestseller in America but has also found a considerable audience in the UK, although “I can’t imagine who in my own country might be buying them…”). Firstly, Wright explains that this passage cannot be taken in isolation, but must be placed in context with other verses where Paul is describing the exact same event, such as 1 Corinthians 15:23-27 and Philippians 3:20-21. Moreover, he gets into the exact meaning of the term Parousia as inferring not only a “coming” or “appearing” event, but also a royal presence. This term was often used to talk about the visitation of the Emperor to a colony or province, whereby the citizens of such an area would come to meet him at some distance from the city. It would be disrespectful to the ruler if he had to make the effort to meet his subjects where they are, as if they couldn’t be bothered to make the effort to meet him halfway. Likewise, Dr. Wright expounds, Paul is using a deliberate metaphor which would have been familiar to his readers. There is no “leaving behind” the fallen, sinful creation to its own depravity, then, but every bit of creation coming to be transformed by the returning Christ, with the citizens of His Kingdom prepared to meet Him as He appears.

On that same point, Dr. Wright has a great knack for drawing out some amazingly radical ideas from what is essentially thoroughly conservative and orthodox Biblical theology. He unashamedly defends all the essential components of Christian faith, from the crucifixion, to the actual bodily resurrection of Christ, to His ascension, right through to His actual second coming at the time of judgement. And yet, from all of this orthodoxy, Wright draws out a definitive urgency on the part of the church to effect good stewardship of the creation and justice for the oppressed in the present time, concepts which are sadly lost on (or at least downplayed by) much of the broader church. Additionally, Wright also stresses the Lordship of Christ for what it actually is. Within his examination of the Parousia, for example, he points out that not only was Paul using a royal term to speak of Jesus as the one true Lord, but he was also pointing towards the truth that it is ultimately God alone, through the return of Christ, who will transform the creation in fullness and effect complete justice and vindication of the oppressed. The implication, then, is that Caesar, for whom the term Parousia would have ordinarily been used, would not be the agency through which such transformation will occur. Put simply: God’s restoration of the universe rests upon the truth that Jesus Christ is the one true Lord of all creation, with every other person claiming the title “lord” (or similar) and offering “genuine change” being but a parody of this greater truth. As the author writes in his own words:

Confessing Jesus as the ascended and coming Lord frees up the political task from the necessity to pretend that this or that programme or leader has the key to Utopia (if only we would elect him or her). Equally, it frees up our corporate life from the despair that comes when we realise that, once again, our political systems let us down. The ascension and appearing of Jesus constitute a radical challenge to the entire thought structure of the Enlightenment (and of course several other movements). And, since our present western politics is very much the creation of the Enlightenment, we should think seriously about the ways in which, as thinking Christians, we can and should bring that challenge to bear.

Although Dr. Wright appears to want to be careful with the language he is using, one finds a very subversive theology emerging from his thought. He is essentially saying, in subtlety if not outright, that the governments and political systems of the world do not have a part in the human agency through which God’s Kingdom will come, and that this agency depends on how the church today will challenge those systems rather than adhere to them. Wright comes across as almost anarchist in his thinking (Although he has specifically eschewed that term elsewhere), and it would be interesting to know what kind of praxis he adopts in his own life for these obviously passionate thoughts of his.

This wouldn’t be a review, however, without some hopefully constructive criticism to balance out near-idolisation at this point (Because, obviously, N.T. Wright browses blogs all the time looking for the average person’s opinion of his work, and will no doubt set apart what this 25-year-old amateur theologian has to say amidst the hundreds of respected and qualified peers who have critiqued him; Obviously). While purporting some incredible understandings of scripture and new ideas to challenge his audience, it strikes me that it actually takes Dr. Wright some time to get to his main points. A few dozen of the first pages come across almost as one gigantic rant about the traditional idea of going to heaven, with some odd and distracting juxtapositions of Paul the Apostle and then, say, The Importance of Being Earnest in order to flesh out his argument. I fear he might lose a fair chunk of his audience this way, some of whom could be mere Christian simpletons who aren’t particularly cultured and just want to get to the meat and potatoes (In the nicest vegan way I can possibly employ that colloquialism). I mean, I am one such Christian simpleton myself, and I could easily have given up 30 pages in were I not thoroughly interested in what Wright has to say.

Also, I was a little disappointed at Dr. Wright’s analysis of Hell within all of this, which itself is discussed only fleetingly, something I found surprising given the nature of the work. When he starts getting into his examination of the Biblical concept of resurrection, Wright talks in an extremely positive and optimistic way, referring to portions of scripture such as 1 Corinthians 15:28 (“God shall be all in all”) and Colossians 1:15-20 to discuss how the resurrection is not an event that will be confined to those genuinely-believing Christians, but will actually mean the entire restoration of the universe itself, transformation for all things. From the same chapter of Colossians 1 in verse 23, where Paul speaks of how the Gospel has been “proclaimed to every creature,” Wright discusses how the achievement of Jesus Christ upon the cross is by no means limited to its effects on human beings who affirmatively believe the Gospel, but that “it resonates out, in ways that we can’t fully see or understand, into the vast recesses of the universe.”

After using such beautiful language to talk about the resurrection, it is somewhat surprising that further into the book, he seems almost flustered on the matter of Hell. Wright departs from confidence into speculation about the subject, and quite astonishingly (and probably aware of the fact too), he derives his opinion from no Biblical basis. Explaining that he finds traditional views of Hell too harsh and yet the modern view of Christian Universalism too “liberal,” Dr. Wright tries to find an acceptable midway point and stabs in the dark at the idea that those in the world who reject God’s redemption will turn away so far from the Image of God within them that they will “cease to be human” when the resurrection happens, and instead become beings whose state is beyond pity.

I can certainly sympathise with Dr. Wright in one respect, in that a clear tension exists between the Biblical idea that God will one day sentence the wicked (whomever they may be) to eternal punishment and the equally Biblical idea that God will restore all creation to Himself. This is a very difficult reconciliation to have to make, and it may be that this is one more area to which we will have to accord the mystery of God. It just struck me that the author is somewhat uncertain in his analysis and could stand to be a little more convincing about it. At least, if nothing else, the tension between these two Biblical views ought to be more clearly outlined so that it could become a potential dialogue within the church.

With those critiques aside, however, I am thoroughly enjoying this book so far, and it could be that I will have more to review upon finishing. Needless to say, it’s recommended where you’re able to find it, and can be enjoyed provided the weaknesses are understood to be worth it in light of the impressive ideas Dr. Wright has to convey.

9 responses

  1. Truly a masterpiece in words. Thoroughly enjoyed it. However, your ideas of what is meant by the resurrection quote: when the Bible speaks of resurrection, they take it to mean our “Going to Heaven unquote, perhaps I could ask you to consider this real-time occurance against your theory. Very often starnge events take place in my own life which are inexplicable: The latest of which concerns my wife who had become ill and appeared to be just wasting away. Naturally concerned, I found myself worrying day and night about her condition. However during a restless night of light sleep, a voice from nowhere boomed two words. I was not at all familiar with the naturally produced substance described in those two words, neither did I know where I could obtain it. However, I did obtain it and administered it to my wife who miraculously recovered within just two days. Not only that, but she actually gained healthy weight and a youthful appearance within just a few days. The voice, and those strange events must be from the spirit world as angels of God. I have experienced many events within the so-called “spirit world”. Are we then to believe that we all die to be awakened in thousands of years from now? Perhaps you might give some consideration to that.

    August 24, 2008 at 1:35 pm

  2. Dear Mr. Inquisitor,

    I greatly appreciate not only the challenging and thoughtful response, but also that wonderful story. I am very sorry to hear about what happened to your wife, but I’m unbelievably pleased to hear that she has made a full recovery. I am a great believer in the miraculous, or else I would not be a Christian myself, and I don’t think there need be any contradiction between amazing stories of the miraculous such as this and the hope of resurrection. I don’t wish by any means to turn your bravely expressed personal story into a theological debate, so I shall simply say this: I believe that God answers prayers, and that there is a co-operation between what you might call “the spirit world” and our own physical universe which implies, to me at least, that the two will not be separate forever, and I hope that captures in enough brevity both the spirit of my own meditations as well as this miraculous event you recount.

    I hope you don’t mind, but I had to edit your post at the end just a little bit to keep some honour and appropriateness; not to say in any way that you were being “dishonourable,” but rather that some conversations are best kept for a public setting. I believe we know each other, and if this is such as you have written it, then I would be greatly joyed to speak with you in a more private setting; I would ask that you email me first, however, to spare any misunderstandings that might occur.

    I hope this message finds you well, Sir, and thanks again for your positive and wonderful response.

    Blessings and peace,
    Adam.

    August 26, 2008 at 2:47 pm

  3. Dear Prophet,

    Seems like a very cryptic reply you gave to my last. However, your entire “progressive” philosophy appears to completely discount the existence of the “soul” – the existence of which the majority of earth-bound man-made “religions” accept. We are “taught” by all the “Holy-Joes” of the world that the soul survives after physical death. Furthermore, many simplistic folk such as myself, have memories of various events, and times, pre-birth, discounted by academics as nonsense. However, mine are proven now – yet I must remain a listener to all those wooden-headed academics who write voluminous rantings about their extensive knowledge of “God”. Of course they know Him so well that they can write volumes of nescient utterings for the edification of those poor lost souls trying to find their way in truth.

    Food for your thought too, is that God **created** Heaven and Earth. Likewise, we too are meant to create, because the good Book tells us that we are made in His image. We are not meant to take a free ride here on earth, just like some who, for example, might fail their own driving test, and then proceed to denigrate car owners and all those “gas guzzlers” they ride around in. Such sour grapes for a Holy-Joe, who as a result, has no other option than to “catch a bus”? Poor chap.

    Take for example the failures of this life who have simply not created anything for themselves, or for others, yet expound their own virtues by extolling the virtues of their own egos to reap the goodwill, hope and trust of those lesser poor souls who will likely be misguided by false prophets. Then proceed to demonstrate their “unused” academic superiority in arrogance to edit the postings of others to this blog to fit their own “self-image”.

    God bless and may God help you too.

    August 27, 2008 at 4:46 pm

  4. Hello again,

    You do raise some good points, but I detect a bit of a personal tone in your latest response, so I apologise for anything I said that might have offended you. I have written you an email to your private address which I hope helps explain things a bit more.

    I agree with you completely about God creating Heaven and earth, and calling upon us made in His image to be creative ourselves. I just feel, however, that this creativity from the divine spark carries with it a certain sense of responsibility. I do note that you seem to disagree with a few of the topics about which I write on this site, but was it not your choice to both visit here and see fit to comment as well? I don’t see why we both cannot exercise our own respective freedoms of speech, nor do I accept that either of us should be that Draconian as to hope to stifle the other’s own creativity. Might you not concede that we both have the free will and right to choose those ideals we pursue in life, even when we do not always agree? Unless, of course, such pursuit is an unloving course, such as through advocacy of terrorism, murder, and other similar destructive themes. However, I do not personally condone any destructive activity or thought through this blog, nor do I ever have any intention of doing so. As I have been at pains to note here in the past, whether I write or I act, it is my ultimate hope that it is all done in love.

    I do hope that after an initial misunderstanding, you and I can debate and discuss these things in a civil manner, without either of us having to resort to the tired method of ad hominem, ie, the attempt of one party to belittle and insult the other as a perceived means of trumping the argument in question. I believe that you have a lot of wisdom to convey and I wouldn’t mind seeing some of that here at all, even if the purpose of it is to challenge me. I am not opposed at all to constructive criticism and the opposition of anything I write here, as long as it is done in a helpful and respectful manner.

    In addition to this, I would like to know why it is you feel your own experiences and my own should somehow be mutually exclusive? Especially since many of them over the last several years appear to have converged on some kind of overlap? Perhaps that is “food for thought as well.”

    I don’t think you and I disagree as much as you think we might, if only we could get to a point where we could understand and respect each other. Or is it too much in this world for others to express different ideas from our own that we must resort to complete and utter intolerance of both the ideas and the people who propose them?

    August 27, 2008 at 9:56 pm

  5. Brandon

    Are you saying NT Wright is support soul sleep in the intermediate state?

    Here is what I think NT Wright supports, I obtained this quote from another site:

    Wright definitely does not advocate soul sleep. He thinks that the intermediate state is some sort of restful, conscious existence in the presence of the Lord (hence the use of ‘paradise’ as a description which wouldn’t make much sense in terms of soul sleep), until the day of resurrection when we will be re-embodied.

    To quote from Surprised by Hope: “all the Christian dead are in substantially the same state, that of restful happiness. Though this is sometimes described as ‘sleep’, we shouldn’t take this to mean that it is a state of unconsciousness. Had Paul thought that, I very much doubt that he would have described life immediately after death as ‘being with Christ, which is far better’. Rather, ‘sleep’ here means that the body is ‘asleep’ in the sense of ‘dead’, while the real person – however we want to describe him or her – continues.

    … it is a state in which the dead are held firmly within the conscious love of God and the conscious presence of Jesus Christ, while they await that day. There is no reason why this state should not be called ‘heaven’, though we must note once more how interesting it is that the New Testament routinely doesn’t call it that, and uses the word ‘heaven’ in other ways.” pp.183-184

    Explicitly, Wright states that “the Christian dead are conscious” (p. 185). This is from the section in the book on ‘Paradise’, pp. 183-187

    August 29, 2008 at 11:46 pm

  6. Thank you for that, Brandon, and yes, this is why I feel, as earlier noted, that spiritual experiences and the hope of resurrection do not necessarily contradict each other. I do think there is a great urgency on Wright’s part, being a theologian, to put everything about this subject in certain, qualitative terms. I’m not entirely convinced. I think the groundwork is important, but much of what happens after the point of death (at least as far as Judeo-Christianity is concerned) is always going to remain a mystery. I think it suffices to say that no one dies without being remembered by God, and that this remembrance remains in the fabric of reality, both physical and spiritual, until the time of resurrection.

    August 30, 2008 at 12:28 am

  7. Brandon

    I agree with you.

    I just have been noticing that a lot of soul sleep advocates are taking NT Wright’s statements out of context to support their position. It seems like there is difficulty as it is to interpret scripture in it’s proper context that now we are beginning to misinterpret theologians as well. In the end it is the core biblical message that matters, at least perhaps that is one thing we can all agree with.

    August 30, 2008 at 1:20 am

  8. bodypolitics

    post moar faggort

    November 11, 2009 at 9:34 pm

  9. Pingback: Trinitarian Universalism and Christian Hope « The Progressive Prophet

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